This is a time of uncertainty. COVID-19 has swept through our nation, with the total number of cases in the United States exceeding 100,000 today. Schools have been shut down. Businesses have closed. Many of those who still have a job are working from home. The President just signed a 2.2 trillion dollar economic relief bill to help prop up an economy that has been in a free fall. Things are far from normal.
Churches have not been immune to the effects of this Coronavirus pandemic. Churches have had to alter the way they do ministry. Almost no churches are meeting in person right now. Many have chosen to go online for the time being with the realization that we don’t know when we will be able to meet in person again. We hope it will be sooner rather than later, but nothing seems certain at this point.
As a local church pastor, I have spent a great deal of time considering how to best shepherd the church the Lord has entrusted to my care. As it became clear that the normal Lord’s Day gathering of our church was going to be impacted by COVID-19, the Lord brought to my mind a specific passage of Scripture. It’s a passage of Scripture that I have studied and preached before. It’s a passage of Scripture that I spend some time focusing on in our church’s new member’s class.
It’s Acts 2:42-47.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
We find here at the end of Acts 2 a description of the early Christians’ first post-Pentecost gatherings. They didn’t have 2,000 years of church history to look back on as they considered what their gathering should look like. They hadn’t yet developed a Sunday School program. There was no AWANA ministry. There probably wasn’t even a nursery with Noah’s ark painted on the wall. This was the beginning.
As we face a time when everything has been stripped away, I think it is instructive for us to consider the gathering of the first church. In looking at Acts 2, I developed four questions that are guiding the way that our church is approaching these strange days. Perhaps you will find them helpful as you continue to lead your church.
1) How can we gather?
Right now we are not gathering. We believe it wise to follow the guidelines we have been given by the Center for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health. In addition, the Commonwealth of Virginia has instituted a ban on gatherings of 10 or more. We believe that it is our obligation as good citizens of this earthly kingdom to obey the governing authorities in this manner in accordance with Romans 13:1. This is not a situation where the government is persecuting us or arbitrarily seeking to prevent us from gathering. The ban on gathering is for our own health and the health of our community. We believe that obeying this order is part of what it means to be a good neighbor. In the meantime, we’re doing pre-recorded video sermons and creating opportunities for folks to connect through ZOOM.
With that being said, Acts 2 shows us that central to the first Christians’ identity as the people of God was their gathering together. In fact, it seems clear to me from the New Testament that a church isn’t a church if it doesn’t gather. There’s a temptation in this moment to say, “That’s okay, we can just do church online.” But you can’t. You can’t do church online. You can’t do church sitting in front of your television at home. You can’t do church sitting in front of your computer screen. Central to our identity as the church is our gathering together physically. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
While our church has made the difficult decision not to gather during this time, I’ve reminded them that it’s not normal for the church not to gather physically. It’s not normal, and it’s not good. Video sermons are a poor substitute for the physical gathering of God’s people each week. It’s not the same. It’s why we held off on canceling our gathering for as long as we could. We canceled all of our other activities a week before we canceled our Lord’s Day gathering because of the value we place on it. I’ve encouraged our congregation to mourn this loss. No matter how long it lasts, it is a great loss.
I can’t help but think though, how sweet it will be when restrictions on gathering are lifted, and we are once again able to be together on the Lord’s Day as our God intended. In fact, I’m trusting that absence will make our hearts grow fonder. I’m praying that we will all cherish in a much deeper way the privilege that we have each week of coming together as God’s people. On Sundays as I begin our service, I often say something like, “What a privilege it is to gather as God’s people to worship our great God together.” I’m praying that as I say those words next time, we’ll all deeply feel what a great privilege it truly is. I’m also praying that those who have been a little lax in their commitment to gathering together will truly realize during this time what they’ve been missing. I’m praying that they will make a renewed commitment to gathering together with God’s people just as soon as we are able to do so again.
2) How can we pray?
As we look at the book of Acts, we see the first church’s commitment to prayer. Jesus’ followers who gathered in Jerusalem prior to the coming of the Holy Spirit were praying. Verse 42 of Acts 2 says that they devoted themselves to the prayers. In Acts 3, Peter and John went to the temple at the hour of prayer. In Acts 4, we see them praying for boldness in the gospel despite persecution. In Acts 6, the apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. You get the point. The first church, the Jerusalem church, was devoted to prayer.
Our elders are committed to praying for our church during this time even more than normal. I’ve challenged our church to devote themselves to prayer. We’ve made readily available our directory of active members and regular attenders. In addition, we’ve created opportunities for our congregation to connect with one another over the internet and pray together. If this crisis doesn’t cause us to fall on our faces before the Lord and seek Him in prayer, what will it take for that to happen? I’m asking God to use this time of crisis to grow our dependence on Him.
3) How can we care?
One of the things that marked the first church was their commitment to caring for one another. Look at verses 44-45. The first Christians were willing to do whatever it took to make sure that the most basic necessities of their brothers and sisters in Christ were met. Some have said, “Wait, is this socialism?” No, it’s not socialism. It’s Christians voluntarily caring for the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s Christians loving one another as Jesus first loved us.
It’s hard for us to gauge at this time the economic fallout that will result from this Coronavirus. Some of our members may lose their job. Others may have their hours cut. We just don’t know at this point. But as the people of God, we must commit ourselves to caring for the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. This virus and the fallout from it may prove to be an opportunity for us to prove our love for one another by making real sacrifices to make sure that everyone’s most basic needs are met.
I’ve told our church that if they find themselves in financial need due to this virus, please do not hesitate to let me know. I’ve promised that we will do all that we can as a church to care for them during this time. We’ve also acknowledged that some may have needs that are not financial. Maybe a member just needs someone to go to the grocery store for them. I’ve asked our people to let us know if they have such a need. I’ve had members volunteer to help meet these kinds of needs should they arise.
I want our church family to know that we’re in this together. We’re going to care for one another during this time and see to it that everyone who is a part of our fellowship is taken care of. I’ve challenged our people to look for ways that we can care for one another during this time.
4) How can we see the gospel go forth?
The first church saw the gospel go forth exponentially. The end of verse 47 tells us that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Why did this happen? They were living as the church should live. And they were proclaiming the truth of the gospel.
My prayer is that our church members would live in such a way during this pandemic that people want to know the reason for the hope that they have. I’ve challenged our people to care for their neighbors. I’ve exhorted them not to be a jerk when someone gets the last package of toilet paper before they can get some. I’ve encouraged them to support our local businesses as they are able. Along with those things, we must demonstrate confidence in the Lord even when we don’t know what the future may hold.
Finally, we are looking for opportunities to share the truth of the gospel with others. We’re doing “Who’s Your ONE?” this year. I’ve encouraged our people to pray for their ONE during this time. I’m praying that my ONE and his family will not contract the Coronavirus. I’m praying that God would use this time in his life to draw him to Himself. I’m praying for an opportunity to speak the truth of the gospel to him.
We may find that we have unexpected opportunities to testify to the work that Jesus has done in our lives. We must be ready for those opportunities. We must not shy away. Instead, we will look for those opportunities and embrace them.
None of this is anything earth-shattering. These are simply four questions that I’ve found helpful in thinking through how to lead the church I pastor through this difficult and uncertain time. I hope you’ll find them helpful. Maybe you can even share in the comments some of the biblical principles you are thinking through as you pastor the flock entrusted to your care.